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Are Drones the Next Step for Sports Planners’ Response to Emergencies?

9 Mar, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
UAVs Could Navigate Off-Road Terrain, Seek Out Lost or Injured Athletes

The newest technology to find lost hikers could be the best thing to ever happen to off-road sports events.

According to an article in Adventure Journal, a group of researchers from the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the University of Zurich has developed a method for common drones to navigate deeply forested trails in search of missing persons.

Lost and injured hikers are a particularly big problem for Switzerland, whose emergency responders receive more than a thousand calls for help a year. But even sending drones into the hills to find people is difficult; the complicated backdrop of vegetation combined with fluctuating light and shadows can throw the unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAV) mechanical sensors for a loop.

The scientists strapped three GoPros to the heads of hikers to capture more than 20,000 multi-angle shots, then programmed their drones using a deep neural network designed for pattern recognition and learning by training, similar to a brain. It was a success: The drone figured out the direction of the trail 85 percent of the time, while humans could only manage 82 percent.

“Interpreting an image taken in a complex environment such as a forest is incredibly difficult for a computer,” Alessandro Giusti, a researcher at the Dalle Molle Institute, said in a news release. “Sometimes even humans struggle to find the trail.”

So how does it tie in with sports events? By being the eyes and ears of organizers and emergency personnel on endurance, mountain bike, cross-country ski, trail running and similar events where athletes take off through unmarked territory, bringing on the risk that he or she might stray from the trail and become lost or injured. Drones can move quickly, advancing over terrain far more efficiently than a physical search. The ability to send back a signal telling where the athlete is located means emergency personnel can get out to the athlete quickly.

Of course, there are plenty of impediments at the moment. Most of today’s commercially available drones have a limited battery life; however, the technology is advancing quickly, and eventually, drones will be able to perform extensive search functions. In addition, some places have rules against drone use; however, it is possible to imagine these rules having a loophole for UAVs used as ‘first responders.’

Professor Luca Maria Gambardella, director of the Dalle Molle Institute, said, “Many technological issues must be overcome before the most ambitious applications can become a reality. But small flying robots are incredibly versatile, and the field is advancing at an unseen pace. One day robots will work side by side with human rescuers to make our lives safer.”

Read the full report from the Swiss team here.

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